‘Admission Impossible’: the myth of school choice

The schizophrenic promotion/demonisation of parental choice in schooling leaves parents dejected, and kids no better educated.

Jennie Bristow

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In her monthly column, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. This month, she argues that the promotion of parent choice in schooling leaves parents dejected and divided, and kids no better educated.

Our eldest daughter starts primary school in September. Now the long-awaited Admissions List has come down from the local council, we know which school. Is it a good school? Yes. Was it a school that we chose? No. Does it matter? No, not really. So what, I wonder, has the past few months been all about?

As a parent, every now and then you feel forced to play the game. A basic understanding of maths and geography, combined with a sporadic reading of the national papers, is enough to teach you that the issue of ‘school choice’ in the UK is something of a misnomer. You cannot simply choose to send your child to the best school in the area, as it will be massively oversubscribed; you can choose to send your child to the nearest school to your house, in the hope that it will have places, but that’s more about where you happen to live than what you choose to do. And as ever, affluent areas tend to have the best schools.

Meanwhile, the controversy generated by schools admissions procedures ratchets up every year, with popular faith schools now standing accused of demanding payments from parents to secure a place, and UK education secretary Ed Balls chasing hot on the heels of any school deemed to be breaching admission rules in any way (1). In March, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Foundation and Aided Schools National Association (FASNA) called upon the government to end the ‘misleading rhetoric’ of school choice, which, they rightly pointed out, cannot be delivered (2); yet when Brighton and Hove council did just that, by introducing a ‘lottery’ system for the most sought-after schools, there was outcry from parents (3).

From parents’ point of view, the suspicion that ‘choice’ is something of a sham seems to collude with a deeply held reluctance to give up that choice. And while this is pretty irrational, when you’re going through the process it starts to make a certain sense. After all, we are continually told, our children’s educational achievement is our responsibility. The state can send them to school, sure, but their SATS results and all that follows (glittering professional career and long, healthy life versus low-skilled job with bad diet and too much telly) is ultimately, apparently, down to whether we read to them at night and do their homework properly.

Having been charged with the responsibility for our children’s education, it is unsurprising that we want some measure of control over it; and much as we might wish that all schools were equally good, we are well aware that they are not. So we hoik ourselves around the supermarket of state schools, weighing Ofsted inspections against the size of the playing fields and exam results against the ease of the journey to school, taking our decision-making incredibly seriously and demanding that staff give up hour after hour of their precious time to sell their school to us and answer whatever questions we may have. Our reward is not so much the school we end up with, but the identity kick that comes from knowing we have behaved like a responsible parent, fully engaged in the course of our child’s future. We tried our best.

There is much about this active consumer business that is distasteful. It is extremely divisive, forcing parents into camps in favour of this school and opposed to that school, warily circling each other in an attempt to suss out the competition. It is a ridiculous drain on public resources: grateful as I am for the time that several headteachers have spent talking to me about their school, I cannot help but think how much their staff or pupils would have benefited had that time and energy been spent on the school instead. But in servicing the imperatives of parent choice, headteachers – highly skilled, professional people – do not get to choose how their time should best be spent.

This process leads to cynicism more than satisfaction: framing access to a public service in the language of ‘choice’ sets up the impossible-to-meet expectation that one can tailor this ‘service’ to one’s individual needs and desires. It is thoroughly boring to all of those not personally immersed in the process. And it turns an exciting rite of passage into a prolonged process of anxiety and doubt, which must transmit to the children in some way. The brilliant documentary Admission Impossible, screened on Channel 4 in 2006, revealed with gut-wrenching clarity the extent to which parental ambitions for their child’s education can clash, irreconcilably, with their child’s abilities, their financial status, or merely the fates of demography and geography. When the child is intimately involved in this process – which, at secondary school age, he or she often is – the impact of losing out can be profound.

Above all, the consumer-choice approach represents the extent to which education has become politicised – used by policymakers for instrumental ends that have little to do with the provision of high-quality education to all the nation’s children. Parents feel compelled to play the game because they are encouraged to do so, by a policy that sees schools as a way of making parents take their responsibilities seriously. The idea seems to be that parents will take the bait of ‘choice’ in order to engage with the business of their children’s schooling, thereby becoming active citizens and ensuring, as a result of naked self-interest, that their child’s school will be OK.

In this low-aspirational, politicised perspective, the notion that an education system can help children to transcend social background, through the promotion of knowledge and the recognition of a child’s academic achievements, is lost. It all comes right back down to who your parents are – where they live, how hard they appeal, and whether they have the time, inclination, energy and ability to compensate for the gaps in the education provided by schools.

This is desperately unfair. But in the absence of a broader educational aspiration for schools, as opposed to an instrumental one, the solution cannot be simply to say: ‘No choice.’ As parents, however you may balk at having to play the game, the fact that you want the best for your child – and are prepared to go all out to get it – is to be expected. To ‘do a Brighton’, and remove from parents all pretence of choice and control through allocating their children through a lottery system, is only more honest and fair to the extent that it dismisses parents’ reasonable understanding that there is a difference between schools, and that it is in their own child’s interest to be on the right side of that divide.

Allocating affluent children of ambitious parents to less popular (that is, less good) schools will not create a universal, high-quality education for all – just a gang of pissed-off parents, who feel that their best efforts at doing right by their child have been stamped upon by a political administration that, in all other respects, keeps nagging them to make precisely these choices.

The Manifesto Club has recently launched an inspired campaign, calling upon the government to put the word ‘education’ back in its departments dealing with schools, colleges and universities. ‘This symbolic act will embolden parents, teachers, lecturers – and all those committed to education as the primary aim of these institutions – and ensure that education is not forgotten in favour of the teaching of skills, good behaviour or “emotional wellbeing”’, states the petition (4). In addition to this symbolic act, we need a proper national debate – about what education should be, and how good schools can be provided for all, rather than reserved for privileged areas of town or randomly accessed by lottery. Some excellent schools in poor areas of town already exist – this is not an impossible ambition, simply something that policymakers view as too old-fashioned and difficult a challenge.

The tangle over admissions procedures, with the government oscillating between the flattery and battery of parental choice, will lead us nowhere positive. On the other hand, the significant intellectual and financial resources held by the state education system provide the basis for achieving all that parents really want – a good education for their children.

Jennie Bristow is the former commissioning editor of spiked, and has two young daughters. She is a freelance writer and researcher, editor of the bpas journal Abortion Review, and a member of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum. Email Jennie {encode=”mailto:jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

(1) Schools breaching admissions code, BBC News, 3 April 2008

(2) School choice ‘misleads parents’, BBC News, 3 March 2008

(3) ‘And the winners are…’, BBC News, 2008

(4) Campaign for Education: The Missing Word

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Topics Politics